Technique Talk: Chael Sonnen on the simplicity of successful MMA wrestling

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Let's start with a basic question: what constitutes good MMA wrestling? An elite amateur wrestler's background is no guarantee of success in MMA, yet best practices for those learning wrestling through MMA are historically more helpful now than ever and widely disseminated. In other words, those that should succeed often do not even while their skills are in high demand.

Is there a particular background or style that portends success in MMA? How much of pure wrestling is valuable in MMA? For those with no wrestling background in MMA, how can we best evaluate the strength of their wrestling talent?

Chael Sonnen, UFC middleweight turned light heavyweight as well as an NCAA All-American in wrestling, goes in-depth in this interview to explain why some elite wrestlers find difficulty transferring their skills, what the current state of wrestling in MMA looks like, which camps are the best at converting elite wrestlers into MMA fighters, which style of wrestling best translates into actual fights, why a simple but highly effective wrestling game is really all anyone needs and so much more.

Full audio and partial transcript below:


Why is there a loose connection between the level of wrestling somebody comes from, and their level of achievement with the use of their wrestling in MMA? So for example, you'll see some guys who are Olympians or Olympic alternates whose MMA wrestling is 'ehh', and then you'll see some of these guys who come from D-II programs and they'll beat the brakes off of you. What is your sense about why that happens?

There's a tremendous misunderstanding amongst exclusive MMA fans as to what wrestling is. One element of wrestling that I know, what I grew up with we put a lot of emphasis towards was the takedown. But, you could win an Olympic championship and never score a takedown, and I don't know if MMA fans are even aware of that. You could win a NCAA championship and never score a takedown, and that's actually quite common; to literally never score one is possible, to literally never score one doesn't happen all that often, but to not put an emphasis on it is very common.

So the point that I'm getting at is, a guy can be a fantastic wrestler on the wrestling mat and come in with a lot of credentials. In fact, there's a Cuban fighter right now named Yoel Romero, who for my time is as good as any wrestler that ever lived during that generation - during the Cael Sanderson/Les Gutches/Yoel Romero phase - but he didn't score a lot of points with takedowns. He scored his points with tilts and turns, and defensive techniques on top.

So when he gets into an MMA situation, it doesn't mean he's going to be able to get on top, and that's really misunderstood by a lot of people.

That leads to my second question, which is basically about 'What is valuable in MMA'? If you listen to Roger Gracie, he'll tell you a lot of this BJJ stuff - sport BJJ - it's kind of worthless. Like for a true Spider Guard, you need to be able to grip the gi; there goes that. For X-Guard, you're going to get pounded on by anybody whose got good balance and is on top. So how much of wrestling - pure wrestling - is worthless for MMA contexts?

I would say you could only use a couple of the techniques. I would say it's as few as two. Now there's variations off of that, but those become MMA. Here's what you want to do, in any (combat) sport: you want to find out what's illegal, and whatever is illegal is what you want to do in MMA. A perfect example would be dirty boxing; the reason you can't grab a guy around the collar of his neck and start punching with your free hand in a boxing match is because it's so effective that they had to make it illegal. Wrestling is the same way a lot of our locks, there's times in wrestling we're not allowed to lock our hands together. The reason is if we locked our hands the other guy would never get away, and it would just be a battle of who could ever get to that lock first would win.

So you want to find out what is illegal and you quickly want to start implementing them if they are legal in a sanctioned MMA fight, because it's what's most effective. In Greco-Roman wrestling which is what I did, we're not allowed to block with our head. If the gentleman was to put his head on you, it shuts down all of your offense, and they just made it illegal to do. I know I fought a guy named Michael Bisping, couldn't wrestle a lick, but he put that head where I grew up my entire life that being illegal to do, and it completely shut me down for an entire round until I could figure it out.

I hope I'm answering your question.You bring up Roger Gracie's comment, and yeah he's probably the most fantastic and intimidating submission guy in the UFC right now, but if I could take two more elements away it would shut him down completely. He loves to get on a guy's back and he'll choke you out. If you took that away, it would really limit him. But the great fighters are only good at one or two things.

So what is hugely valuable?

For wrestling technique, if you could get to the body, meaning you get the underhook position, and you can get your hands locked and can get control of his body, that would be the No. 1 thing. Or if you could get control of his head. And when I say 'body' of course that would also come down to his hips, like to what people would call a double leg situation. A double leg in MMA is completely different than what you would do in wrestling because the posture's different. You're standing upright as opposed to bent over, you're slipping a punch as a opposed to grabbing a guy's elbow and doing a traditional elbow pull or slide-by in wrestling.

So there's only a couple of things in wrestling that really work. Wrestlers tend to do good in MMA because they tend to be just some tough guys, it's not a karate situation where they grew up their whole life punching the air; in a wrestling situation you grab a hold of another human being every day. They get in good shape and they're rough, they're used to going a long time and going in there when they're hurt and tired and all that good stuff. Wrestlers don't do well because wrestling technique is superior to another discipline's technique.

I wrestled a little bit, but I'm terrible at it. I'm just a hobbyist, so I'm speaking from a very amateurish position. But from my vantage point, it looks to me like the state of MMA wrestling is similar to the state of jiu-jitsu in MMA, which is to say guys are much better at defense than they are at offense. People will always say Georges St. Pierre is this amazing MMA wrestler, but he's one of the few guys out there who's executing takedowns. Most of the time when you think of good MMA wrestlers you think of guys like Jose Aldo who just limp legs and gets out of single leg and double leg attempts. Would you agree with that characterization?

The first thing I'm going to disagree with is how you humbly opened your question, I would like to state for all of your listeners that Luke Thomas is possibly the single greatest mind I've ever had the pleasure to work with in understanding all aspects of MMA, and he often likes to beat himself up at times, but don't fall for it. The guy's a genius.

Secondly, you guys, Georges St. Pierre has one wrestling technique, Georges St. Pierre could never push and pull and pummel and set a guy up. He has one technique, which is the double leg. Now off of that double leg he's got about three different setups he uses to get to that position, and he's got about six different finishes depending on what his opponent does when he gets there. I would call him the best wrestler in MMA, but I would also go out and go 'Georges knows extremely little about wrestling'. If you want to go into a wrestling match, Georges is not the guy you want to coach and train you.

But he has learned and perfected one position. Again he has about three setups and five finishes. He's phenomenal. I watch him run over guys like Josh Koscheck and I can just hardly even believe what I'm seeing, but again, it's just one position. I would like to remind you, the really good ones, the greats, only have one of two things they do well. Mike Tyson only had an uppercut, but the greats only need one or two tools.

If you look around, guys are training MMA wrestling, but they're getting better at stopping a takedown versus executing one. Would you agree with that?

100 percent, absolutely. And the reason is in wrestling if I go to a wrestling practice, and I go to wrestling practice all the time - I go wrestle with our local college - but I'm going to hit a hundred different moves. It's just part of a wrestling day. You're going to grab this position, then you're going to work out of this position, you're going to hit about a hundred different moves. In MMA, there's only one or two that work. So from a defensive posture, you don't have to learn wrestling to stop wrestling. You only have to learn a quick sprawl to stop a double leg, and maybe something else. Everything else gets thrown out a lot like what Roger said.

Is there a good base for it? And here's what I mean: Henry Cejudo is going make his way into MMA, and mentally we'll see where he is, but if you ask scouts to look at the way he wrestles - he's athletic, he's quick, he has great motion, high amplitude throws. Do those things in your mind watching that correspond with success in MMA?

Very little of that will. If Henry Cejudo was a stock, I would invest heavily in the stock. His work ethic, his competitive ability, his gamesmanship, his control of the mat, those are the things that will work, but no you're not going to see many of those techniques.

Let me give you a perfect example. In this country, the Greco-Roman wrestlers are usually the freestyle rejects, the guys that couldn't make it in freestyle went over to Greco-Roman. Now I am a Greco-Roman guy, so I can tell you first hand that really is true. However, with the freestylers being the better athletes and having the far superior, or far greater techniques numbers-wise, Greco-Roman wrestlers have always done better in MMA, from Randy Couture to Dan Henderson, Matt Lindland, myself. We've always done better than the freestyle guys and none of us can figure out why.

I argue that it's largely due to the posture. When you bring up Henry Cejudo, he is in a bent over situation. He's bent at the waist and back, he's keeping his head low to the mat. In a Greco-Roman situation, you're standing straight up and down, which is the same posture as you use in an MMA or a boxing situation. It's straight up and down. And a lot of the freestyle guys are really having a hard time getting their attacks off and getting to the legs or to the hips because they're so used to doing it crouched over as opposed to standing upright which is what you're forced to do in the Octagon.

What does that portend for somebody like Jordan Burroughs, or even Mr. Ankle Pick himself, Cael Sanderson?

Again, Cael would never hit an ankle pick in MMA. It just wouldn't work. If that shoe isn't there to grab, it's not going to work. He's going to slip. He's just going to slip right off of a guy's slippery ankle. You bring up the ankle pick, it just makes me go right back to Yoel Romero who a lot of your listeners aren't going to know who he is, but I'm a bit of a fan because again he's from my day.

He also fought in Strikeforce, he lost to Feijao Cavalcante.

He lost to Feijao in fact, yeah that was the fight where Feijao ended up getting in some red tape with the commission, but Yoel did get brought over, even though he lost - he's 0-1 in Strikeforce - they did bring him to the UFC. He's got his debut coming up.

But the point is, yes, those techniques would not work, and even Jordan Burroughs' double leg. Would a double leg work in MMA? Of course. It's probably the most effective, high percentage takedown in MMA, but his setups aren't going to work. He's not going to be bent over, he's not hitting arm drags, he's not going to drop to both knees on the mat and then come springing off the mat. He's going to have to do it from an upright position. All of Jordan Burroughs' double legs start with his head underneath your head, and then him driving in an upward motion. He would have to adapt to where his head is upright and where he would have to go down to get to the double leg.

Could he do that? Yeah, he could probably do that in a matter of months, but it's still going to change. It's not going to be the same thing and the same with Cael. Cael's biggest scoring techniques would not work in the Octagon, however, I don't think any of us are going to doubt that Cael will find a way to drag somebody down inside of the ring.

I speak to some wrestlers and they tell to me, 'Hey listen, people say the double-leg is higher percentage than, I don't know, a single-leg sweep, but that's not true because it's really a function of the wrestler using it'. But it seems to me a double leg is a more accessible tool to all levels of wrestling. Jordan Burroughs' double is going to be a lot better than your average guy at some MMA gym, but they do work more often. Do you agree?

Oh absolutely, I absolutely agree. I don't believe the single leg exists in MMA. Whenever I teach it, I give a guy my leg. I get all my guys around, they're sitting down, they're watching me in the middle showing techniques. I give a guy my leg, and I ask the group, 'Does this guy have my leg?' and they all say yes. And I say, 'Well look again, does he have my leg?', and they yes, and I say 'Look again, does he have my leg, or do I have both of his hands?' And that's where people start to understand, a single leg, you don't want a single leg. I'll gladly start a fight allowing a guy to have a single.

Is that why we don't see tree-top takedowns or guys run the pipe. Is the single leg just not effective for MMA purposes generally speaking?

It truly is not, and that doesn't mean you're not going to see a guy grab a single and fall down. I know (Yushin) Okami did a couple of real sloppy ones and surprisingly Hector (Lombard) fell right down over the weekend, but they really aren't. I know Randy Couture loved to go to a one-leg takedown when he was at heavyweight, he would come way up as high as you could possibly get in the groin, and lift the guy straight up and put him down, using his head as a lever. That kind of worked, but I think largely he was forced to do that because those heavyweights are so big he just couldn't get his arms wrapped around them. But yeah, you're really not going to see them. You're just not, a guy can hop on one leg but if you get a hold of both legs, there's nothing to hop, especially if you pick him up off the mat. It's just simple physics with gravity.

Who would you say is, for example Chris Honeycutt came out of Edinboro I believe ...

Oh yeah. Edinboro, yep, he's at AKA now.

He was recruited, right? People saw what he was doing in D-I. Obviously he also expressed interest. But I think people or camps now are better at taking those guys, and more quickly transitioning them to the higher levels of MMA. Who would you say when you look around the landscape is doing that well, and then why?

I wasn't sure if your question what athlete is doing that well, or what programs are good at recruiting. But the recruiting is really going - for wrestlers at least - to AKA. They've got Daniel Cormier, one of the most respected wrestlers of recent memory, not only as a competitor but as a coach. Mo Lawal, they've got Cain (Velasquez) of course out there, Jon Fitch, they had Koscheck for a while, these are all very good wrestlers so it was pretty easy to start attracting other good wrestlers, but, you know, there are a lot of guys - and they aren't necessarily the champions in wrestling - that I think would transition to MMA a lot quicker and better.

Again for the listeners, you can win a national championship in wrestling without scoring a takedown. And though that doesn't literally happen very often, it comes very close. There's a number of guys who will get one takedown a match, but then get on top and score a plethora of points to advance to the next round. And that just doesn't work in MMA. There's other guys who get takedowns, but it's all on the mat. They shoot, they stop on both knees, they get in a scramble situation, and they come out on top. The kind of wrestler that's going to do well in a combat style event like MMA is one that can explode through, doesn't need to spend time on the mat, hit his opponent, get him off his feet and get on top quickly.

That's why you believe Honeycutt could be? Because he finishes takedowns with authority, and he's a big physical bruiser?

Yeah, he's a big rough guy, I'm a believer in Honeycutt, I was pretty excited when he came to MMA, I was hoping we'd get him up here and pull out one, but they scooped him up and yeah, I think he's going to do well. He is a bruiser like you said, he's a big physical guy, dives in there for a takedown.

The other thing that's important is when you get on top. One of the reasons we haven't seen foreign wrestlers do very well, and there's been champions - Yoel Romero, once again, to go back to him - there's been a number of other guys that have come over. Vladimir Matyushenko is a great example. He can't wrestle a lick inside the Octagon and is one of the most decorated wrestlers the UFC has, and a lot of fans don't even know that. In America, you are rewarded if you can keep an opponent down. In America, you are rewarded if you can get up off of the bottom. So in other countries when a takedown happens, there is no effort to stand up and get away, there is also no effort to keep the guy down. If you're down and you stay there for about 15 seconds, the referee will force the top guy to let you up and then the match continues on their feet.

So a lot of these foreign guys, they don't know how to do it. They get a takedown, but with a guy like me whose going to scramble and pop right back up to his feet, all of a sudden you're exhausted, your takedown didn't benefit you anything because you didn't get to lay there and use it, now you're back on your feet and you're tired. That's a big problem for the foreign guys. The other thing is if we take a foreign guy down, we can keep him there all day because that's what we've spent our whole life is holding a guy down. The foreign guys aren't use to standing up and getting away.

That's the reason, you know I've seen a lot of articles come out (and say ), 'If the Olympics get bashed, are the Russians going to come in, are the Ukrainians ...'. They can try, but their style of wrestling will not adapt.

Everyone says the Russian connection to MMA is through sambo and to a much lesser extent judo, yet they dominate in international wrestling. You're of of the mind American folkstyle is clearly better suited given the nature of MMA, for MMA, than the more common international freestyle.

I certainly would. The international freestyle or even the International Greco-Roman, it's very very limited on what would transfer over. And again if you can't get up off the bottom, you're in really big trouble unless you're some kind of Roger Gracie style where you don't mind being there. And the other thing is, it's lot of energy to use a takedown if you go out and you fight hard for a takedown and the opponent pops back up, well now your batteries run down, and here you are back in battle. In wrestling you'd usually have some time to work. You're just trained to have that breather. It's a really big deal for foreign wrestlers, and we see it a lot. Tom Watson just beat a very good foreign wrestler, he beat him to death, but it's the same deal, I can't think of his name I think you know who I'm talking about. Thiago Silva tapped him out, and Tom Watson just beat him up.

Stanislav Nedkov

Yeah, and the guy is an excellent, excellent fighter, and he's an excellent wrestler, but they just don't transfer. It's not the same thing.

What do we even call MMA wrestling, and here's what I mean. You see Daniel Cormier hitting inside trips, and you see occasionally guys catch a leg and kick out a post, but I was told generally that trips are valuable but if you see a guy who's overly reliant upon them, it probably means he's not the best wrestler. Then we have Demian Maia who has elevated trips. I don't know who doesn't get tripped when he gets a hold of them. What do you call that: an extension of his basic jiu-jitsu takedowns that he's elevated to a high art or is that also MMA wrestling?

I wouldn't call it MMA wrestling just because what Maia's doing would be illegal in wrestling, but that's back to my original point: find out what's illegal and start doing it because they made it illegal because it's the most effective. What Maia's doing is a combination, to me, of what we call backyard wrestling, where he's just out there going hard and making things work. Of course, he's got some wrestling and some judo mixed in.

I was a victim of that by Maia. I got him up against the fence, I'm in a position that I like, he steps across and he throws me all through the air. I come crashing down to the mat thinking, 'What in the heck just happened?', and 'How? How do I do that, that sure was a good move'.

It is a different deal, and what you said about Daniel Cormier, he's in a different weight class. Wait until he comes down. He's able to do some stuff against heavyweights that will change in the light heavyweight division, and Daniel can scramble and hit some beautiful techniques, but he doesn't always have to lately. 'One technique, One score, Good wrestling will take three or four'. If I'm fighting a guy that can wrestle, my first attack isn't going to work. If my first attack works, well then I'm fighting a guy that can't wrestle.

I spoke to Duke Roufus, and we were talking about turning Ben Askren into a better striker, and the sense I got from him was that jabbing at range is just going to be all functional stuff for Ben Askren, but on the ground he had some hope. He had some hope he could really turn on the heat and start hurting guys with the ground and pound. One of the arguments he made was it's a bit of a different muscle group for ground and pounding than it is for striking at distance. Taking that concept and then asking about wrestling, does pure wrestling ask athletically different things from competitors than MMA does? Wrestling seems to be a bit of a sprint then stop, then sprint then stop, whereas if you have a 25-minute fight, it's almost like endurance training. Athletically what are the differences?

I don't know that athletically there is a difference, but there is certainly different athletes. I've seen athletes do real well in wrestling that have that Ben Askren, marathon-style pace, where they're going to start at one pace and just stay on you non-stop, whether it's Askren or Nick Diaz, that are just going to stay on you at the same pace. I also know some guys that go out there and sprint, they start at one pace, boom! And they explode, they get their points and they get on top, and now they go back and rest. They slow everything down, wait for the opponent to get away, boom! Explode again.

I don't think that the sport makes them that way, but I would agree with what Coach Roufus said about Ben Askren. When he gets a guy on the ground, it's very hard to get away, and he drains your batteries so fast. The minute he gets his hands on you, you're starting to get tired. And he stays on you, and he smothers you, and you just never get that range, that freedom to start your offense.

Ben Askren is going to be very effective, but yeah, you don't have to be an expert in this sport to see 'Boy that guy sure needs to work on his hands, and his kickboxing if he's going to go and compete at a high level' like say the UFC.

Any predictions for what will probably be the 165-pound final between Kyle Dake and David Taylor?

I don't have a prediction. As excited as I am for that match, as much as that match needs to happen for wrestling, I almost wish it didn't, just because one of those guys has to come up short, and they're both champions. I just admire them both so much. I can't wait for the match. I'll tell you one thing Luke, here's my prediction: you and I won't miss it.

The whole theme of this conversation talking about these things, if I asked you 'What makes great MMA wrestling?', what would you now say?

What would make MMA wrestling is to understand what works. If you're a wrestler and you're coming over to MMA, or vice versa, you need to understand that most of everything needs to be thrown out. Just like Roger says, 'Hey submissions don't work in MMA', and then he goes and submits everybody. What Roger's really trying to say is most submissions don't work, but there are still a few. So let's isolate what few ones we're going to use, and practice them every day so that our offense of those and our execution is better than our opponents' defense of those. And so that's what I would say in wrestling. Don't be afraid to turn on your own discipline, don't be afraid to go, 'Hey this wrestling stuff really doesn't work very well, but there are a couple of elements where I can drag a guy down to the ground'.

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